Do newspapers really know what readers and customers want? (Indeed, does any business?) Or does the tendency to see things through our own perspective always dominate and cramp our ability to innovate and meet market demands?
A few wildly different experiences recently got me chewing over this recently.
The first: My youngest son nearly went to school without trousers.
My boys go to school in the centre of Sydney — a city of 4 million people — and like most Australian schools, they wear a uniform. The uniform shop is located in the heart of the city's busiest subway arcades and the school pays a commercial rent for the space. So as a parent who needed to buy new school uniforms and supplies for my kids, I was frustrated to learn that the uniform shop was shut for three of the five days the week before school returned from summer break (even then with very limited hours). In fact, it had been shut for nearly six weeks over the holidays. I should add the shop is only open three days a week generally.
The principal had recently lambasted parents for the poor quality of uniform wearing by students, so being pant-less for the youngest, I wrote to the school with the helpful suggestion to recommend the uniform shop be run like the commercial business it paid rent to be, and open at peak periods. Or alternatively, an online shop be created. Perhaps then sales would increase and uniform wearing would improve.
The school's commercial manager (and I use the term loosely) replied. His response, summarised, was “that doesn't work for us.”
My second and third experiences have been the hilarious-if-they-weren't-so-frustrating dalliances I have had with online support teams and Web sites. One is the site run by my university, the other my employer. Both believe, erroneously, that if they put the word “my” in front of the name they call their service — i.e. MyService — it will immediately make it easy to use, customer-friendly, fun and relevant. They are wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong!
Now I love the IT help team at work. When you talk to them over the phone, they are genuinely helpful and they have rescued me from countless dramas. But they keep insisting I make requests over their MyService Web site. A recent experience went like this. Our inbox limits are very low at News Ltd. and while travelling, I regularly jam up, so had purged a lot of data and of course, there was one e-mail I'd deleted that had a pin code for a conference call. I rang IT to see if they could resend it to me in a bit of a panic because I had eight people on the line and I couldn't dial in as moderator. Could they resend me the e-mail?
This simple request generated six “MyService” e-mails into my inbox — the first saying it had received my request, the second saying it had progressed, the third saying it was urgent, the fourth saying they'd identified the cause, the fifth saying they'd resolved the issue and the sixth asking for feedback. The conference code? That e-mail bounced because MyService had filled my inbox.
And if anyone ever needs evidence that a good information architect is worth their weight in gold, go to the University of New South Wales site, MyUNSW, and try to navigate it and find out your latest course mark. Every encounter I have had with the site has made me want to go postal inside the university programming department. When asked to fill in a satisfaction survey and I indicated I was extremely dissatisfied, I commented that the entire site was dysfunctional. The friendly note back said that was incorrect; the site had suffered very few days offline in the past 12 months. Arrgghh.
So what do newspapers do that is not what customers want, but which suits our businesses to deliver?
- Some of us print in black and white when advertisers and readers can get colour everywhere else (and not pay extra or supply additional material).
- We are bulky to use and difficult to buy.
- Our point of sale is old fashioned.
- We home deliver our product, but run promotions to reward readers that make them go out of their way to collect by forcing them to go to a store — or they miss out.
- We split parts of our papers up and make buyers buy from separate stacks.
- We know readers are keen to see innovation in apps and online, but our development budgets mean we can't do that for another 18 months — and then the ground rules have changed again.
- We compete in markets we're not competitive in because we think our history entitles us to support.
- We go overboard on politics and foreign affairs when our readers prefer sport and more human issues closer to home.
Each of these issues are problems that we give our customers. Each of these are issues where we tell our readers and advertisers “if you love us enough, you'll forgive us for this.” And sadly, many are choosing not to. There are alternatives now.
Each of these are issues that simple managerial willpower — and a bit of budget — could change in a heartbeat. Are we brave enough as an industry to call our products MyNewspaper and really mean it?